This common question requires a reasonable answer.
First, is there a possibility of the existence of people who have never heard about Christ? Yes, there are tribes, even to this day, who apparently live in isolation from the rest of the modern world.1 So we can reasonably assume that isolated person(s), those unaware of Christ, have been and are still in existence. This video is about an isolated tribe in Brazil:
Second, is this isolated person a sinner? Yes! The Bible says no one is righteous (Psalm 14: 3; Romans 3: 10), so this isolated person is also a sinner in need of redemption.
Third, should we be concerned about the salvation of those who may have never heard about Christ? Yes! We are asked to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, so if we are concerned about our salvation, we should also be concerned about the salvation of those around us.
Fourth, the three broad and possible theistic answers to this question are:
(1) Yes, God saves those who have never heard about Christ.
(2) No, God does not save those who have never heard about Christ.
(3) I don’t know (agnosticism).
(Atheists are either clueless about their post-life destination or could assert that there is no existence after death.)
If a Christian submits (1) as a reasonable answer, the answer implies that Christ is unnecessary for man’s salvation!! But historical Christianity affirms the necessity of Christ in man’s salvation.
So is Christ necessary or unnecessary? This tension needs to be resolved when we submit (1) as an answer.
But if we submit (2) as a reasonable answer, we need to justify the fact that these isolated people did not get to choose the place of their birth. If they were born into a Christian home or in the modern world, they would not have been placed in this position.
Then again, when God placed these people in their isolated locations, shouldn’t it be God’s prerogative to ensure that Christ is heard by them? So should not God be blamed for their predicament especially if HE does not save them?
If we resort to agnosticism, we are implying that the Bible does not say anything about this. In contrast, the Bible does have something to say about this situation. If the Bible addresses this situation, agnosticism cannot be reasonably justified.
The Bible states that God is loving, just, and merciful. If God is truly loving, just, and merciful, HE should save isolated people. If God does not save these people, there ought to be a valid reason as to why HE does not save the isolated.
Now we know that God does not save people unconditionally, for mankind is saved only by faith in Christ through the grace of God. But the isolated people have genuinely not heard of God or Christ, so isn’t the problem in God’s domain?
The problem does not seem to be in God’s domain for the Bible says, “…It is not that they do not know the truth about God; indeed he has made it quite plain to them. For since the beginning of the world the invisible attributes of God, e.g. his eternal power and divinity, have been plainly discernible through things which he has made and which are commonly seen and known, thus leaving these men without a rag of excuse. They knew all the time that there is a God, yet they refused to acknowledge him as such, or to thank him for what he is or does…” (Romans 1: 19-21, Phillips, Emphasis Mine).
This passage states:
1. God has made HIMSELF very clear to man through HIS creation.
2. Since creation points to God, man knows that there is a God from that which are commonly seen and known.
So the problem is not with God. And man is without an excuse.
I need more faith to be an atheist than to be a theist. How can I observe the marvelous creation of God and still maintain that this marvelous creation is nothing but a product of randomness? Attributing randomness to God’s creation is absurd and insane.
Yet it was Marx-Freud’s view that the theist is subject to a sort of cognitive dysfunction. But Professor Alvin Plantinga, one of the finest Christian philosophical minds of our time, negates Marx-Freud’s contention to state that cognitive dysfunction is innate to an atheist, not a theist. 2
The creation points to God. If I have to choose between the causal options of ‘God’ and ‘chance,’ I would certainly choose God as the Creator.
But does this isolated person acknowledge God as the greatest power in existence? Or does he worship a fellow being or a created object as the greatest being? If the isolated person ascribes greatness to himself or a fellow being or a created object, then he rejects God.
Because God has made HIMSELF abundantly clear to the isolated man, he is to acknowledge God as the greatest being. Therefore, I do not see a possibility of this person’s salvation if he rejects God.
But the general revelation (Creation) does not reveal God’s nature or HIS specific deeds (Trinity, Christ and HIS sacrifice etc). Specifically and to our context, knowledge of Christ is an outcome of a special revelation. Creation does not reveal Christ to the isolated person.
It’s a fact that God placed this isolated person in his isolation. Let us assume that the isolated person acknowledges God, yet is ignorant of Christ. Let us also assume that Christ does not appear to this isolated man in any form or manner – through missionaries, literatures, dreams and visions.
If this be the case, would it be justified to say that God would condemn this isolated person to hell?
Some Christians believe that God would condemn this isolated person to hell if he does not believe in Christ. Popular Christian Q&A website ‘Gotquestions.org’ states this, “If we assume that those who never hear the gospel are granted mercy from God, we will run into a terrible problem. If people who never hear the gospel are saved, it is logical that we should make sure no one ever hears the gospel. The worst thing we could do would be to share the gospel with a person and have him or her reject it. If that were to happen, he or she would be condemned. People who do not hear the gospel must be condemned, or else there is no motivation for evangelism. Why run the risk of people possibly rejecting the gospel and condemning themselves when they were previously saved because they had never heard the gospel?”3
This reasoning is based on two disputable premises:
(P1) A Christian will potentially discontinue evangelism and also prevent evangelism due to the lack of motivation to evangelize.
(P2) The isolated man may reject the gospel to be condemned, so it would be better off not to share the gospel to the isolated man and thus have him saved.
Premise (P1) could be disputed by the fact that man is saved by God through the means of evangelism. Man does not save man, for man simply carries the good news of the gospel, but only God saves man.
Moreover, human evangelism is not the only way to save man. God can appear to a man in dreams or visions to save him.
Significantly, evangelism should not be performed as an obligation. Evangelism is an act motivated by love for God and fellow men. Therefore, evangelism should not cease at any point in time and for any reason.
Premise (P2) can be disputed as well. Even before the isolated man rejects the gospel, he gets to either:
(P2.1) Accept God (through the general revelation)
(P2.2) Reject God
(P2.3) Remain ignorant of God.
When the missionary reaches the isolated man, he is in any of these three situations.
If the isolated man has accepted God, the missionary’s job would be made easier to preach the gospel. Else if the isolated man has rejected or remains ignorant of God, then he could be potentially drawn to the Lord.
If God wants to use us as HIS channels, why should we disobey God?
On the other hand, if there is no evangelization to the isolated man, the man who has already rejected God (P2.2), and the man who is ignorant of God (P2.3), could end up being unsaved. So why lose an opportunity?
Therefore, in order to save the one who has rejected God and to save the one who remains ignorant of God, evangelism to the isolated is necessary.
Shouldn’t the isolated man believe in Christ for his salvation?
When the isolated man recognizes his sinfulness (inadequacy) and accepts God through the general revelation, the benefits of Christ’s one time sacrifice is applied to this man by God.
As in the case of the salvation of Old Testament saints, this man will be saved on account of his belief in God (cf. Genesis 15: 6). The benefits of Christ’s one time atoning sacrifice will be granted to this man because of his belief in God. Therefore, the necessity of Christ is maintained.
On the contrary, the isolated man who rejects God and does not know of Christ, will not be granted salvation for he has rejected God to begin with. The isolated man who is ignorant also chooses to be ignorant through his rejection of that which has been made plain to him – God. Hence even he would not be granted salvation by God.
I do not intend to replace God or to stand in judgment over others, but given my understanding of the Bible, this is the best possible conclusion I can submit. Amen.